It had been two full weeks since Gulf County had been able to check out inmate crews when Mark Cothran, the county’s public works director, addressed the board of county commissioners at their Sept. 28 meeting.
Since then, inmate crews have been reinstated, but the setback has put county projects even further behind schedule.
“We got a phone call from the Department of Corrections that said that one or more of the inmates had had COVID, and so they were going to keep them in for a couple weeks,” Cothran told the Star. “It was just a couple of days after (the meeting) that we actually got inmates back.”
Cothran said that inmate crews play a vital role in the maintenance of county projects and property. This summer, he said the most challenging task to keep up with has been mowing the grass on the roadsides, which has been growing quickly with consistent rain.
Not too long ago, Cothran said, there were more than triple the current number of inmates available to help with county maintenance.
“We used to have 10 inmate crews that worked out of this office,” he said, “and now we’re getting three. So, we can’t keep up with the workload.”
“Actually, we’re getting further and further behind every week, but at the end of the day, three is better than none.”
There is no singular culprit for the reduced number of inmate crews, Cothran explained, and while COVID has played a role, delayed judicial processes and staffing at the Department of Corrections contributed as well.
Inmate work crews are typically supervised by DOC employees, of whom there has been a notable shortage.
According to Paul Walker, a press secretary at the Florida Department of Corrections, currently many of the FDC’s major institutions are at or below critical staffing levels. As a means of mitigating the effects of understaffing, Walker said various measures, including the suspension of some work crews, were being taken.
“The temporary suspension of work squads was due to staffing at a statewide level,” Walker said. “And we have measures in place to try to mitigate some of that staffing problem.”
Some additional measures the FDC is taking include reducing the number of hours in a typical shift and implementing pay raises for correctional officer trainees.
Staffing shortages have also contributed to the closure of many prisons in Northwest Florida, where facilities, including the Gulf Correctional Institution, sustained copious amounts of damage during Hurricane Michael and had to reduce both inmate populations and staff.
In Gulf County, which houses one of the state’s largest correctional facilities, the prison was almost shut down entirely.
County commissioners pleaded with state lawmakers in April to keep one of three correctional facilities operational, citing the significance the facility had as the county’s largest employer.
Still, there are only about a third of the staff and inmates in Gulf County that there were in early 2018.
According to Jim McKnight, director of the Gulf County Economic Development Coalition, with the loss of two facilities, the total possible census capacity of the correctional facility is only half its pre-hurricane numbers.
Cothran said he is hopeful that as fall weather kicks in and grass begins to grow more slowly, the available crews will have the opportunity to catch up on some work.
“Right now, we’re just making the best with what we’ve got,” he said. “We’re thankful for the three crews. Wish it were 10 again, but thankful for three.”